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They were the instrument of the genocide. Where gas chambers and grenades keep killing at arm’s length—detached and swift—pangas did just the opposite. Coarse and weighty, these machetes inflicted wounds by the sweat of their owner. To murder with a panga is like writing a letter with a feather pen. Slower and more personal, the genocidaires wielded these tragic blades:

[The planners of the genocide] directed the importation of hundreds of thousands of pangas and other “agricultural elements” like hoes, axes, scythes, and knives. The pangas alone were enough to arm every third adult male in the country. – Stephen Kinzer

Fear fueled the genocide. Radio DJs circled vitriolic warnings of a Tutsi uprising, stoking the Hutu majority to a preemptive “final solution” of the Tutsi threat. Genocidaires struck fear in their victims, deploying the foulest of tactics. Rape, torture, cannibalism and dismemberment accompanied the killers fatal attacks. Even more than guns could, their knives enflamed deep fear across the nation. The panga is the lasting icon of the bloodbath that stole the lives of over one million people.

Source: Google Images

When I arrived in Rwanda, I came with trepid excitement: Excited by the country’s newfound energy, but uneasy about unearthing its past. When I walked the halls of the genocide memorial in Kigali, I relived all the stories I’ve heard about the most-harrowing global event of my lifetime.
I ached for the thousands of fallen children and stumbled as I walked past the concrete vaults that hold the remains of over 250,000 victims. What struck me most, however, was the encasement of genocide weapons. Right in the center of the case were an assortment of pangas, all with haunting stories engraved into their cruel edges and worn handles.
Earlier in the week, I visited the great silverback mountain gorillas, Rwanda’s most-popular tourist attraction. They lived up to their high billing. I stood within touching distance of several 400-lb beasts. No bars or concrete moats kept me from these beautiful wild animals, however. We watched them in their habitat and allowed them to wander among our group.
The gorillas don’t wander the streets of Rwanda. Befitting their name, these mountain gorillas live high in the jungles. We trekked through thick woods and scaled steep terrain to find them. As we came close to our destination, our capable and effervescent guide, Bernice, cleared the final steps of our path. With each smooth swipe of her machete, she widened our trail till we reached our journey’s end.
Pangas still exist in Rwanda, an unpleasant reminder of the darkest days. But as I watched Bernice brandish her panga, she buoyed my countenance. A tool once used for violence now frees the path for tourism, beauty and prosperity. These guides, pangas in their hands, mean over $250M in tourism revenue, the primary industry in Rwanda’s upstart economy.
As visitors from across the globe flow into the country in search of a glimpse of these mighty creatures, pangas clear the way. The chosen tool of the genocide, once used for atrocities, now a bold symbol of the vibrant new Rwanda.